On the cover of The Trooper, released in June 1983, Eddie swaps his jeans and T-shirt for a red uniform jacket and blue trousers, grasps a sword and a Union flag, and charges into the Crimean War of 1854. Brutally slain Russian gunners litter his path through the battlefield of Balaklava.
The Russian empire was expanding. The Tsar’s powerful Black Sea Fleet had made matchwood of the Turkish navy in a single day. Britain and France formed an alliance in support of Turkey to ‘give the bear a beating’ and sent their warships into the Black Sea. The Russian fleet returned to its heavily defended home base of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula.
On 14 September, British and French troops landed at Kalamita Bay in the Crimea. Their mission was to take the great naval base of Sevastopol and sink the Russian ships. The battles that followed were among the bloodiest in the history of warfare. The death toll was high on both sides:
You'll take my life but I'll take yours too
You'll fire your musket but I'll run you through.
Why did Iron Maiden despatch Eddie to the Crimean War? Perhaps for the same reason Leo Tolstoy wrote about it, explaining that ‘war interests me, not war in the sense of manoeuvres devised by generals, but the reality of war, which is the killing’. Later as a young lieutenant commanding an artillery battery in Sevastopol, Tolstoy noted how soldiers experience a freedom from the moral law – everything is allowed in the heat of battle. He admitted to finding that, in some dark way, appealing.
On 25 October, with Sevastopol still holding out, the Russian army struck back, attacking the British base at Balaklava. Acting in defence of Balaklava, the British Light Brigade charged a battery of Russian artillery guns ranged across the far end of a mile-long valley. This action resulted from an order given and misunderstood by the blundering aristocrats in command, and sent men needlessly to their deaths.
The brigade advanced into the valley and the enemy guns fired a first volley:
The horse he sweats with fear we break to run
The mighty roar of the Russian guns.
Eddie is a cavalryman, riding into Tennyson’s Valley of Death with the Light Brigade. He would feel among comrades there. Riding in the front line of the charge was the 17th Lancers, whose cap badge was a skull and crossed thigh bones, known as the Death or Glory Boys. As they charged, one trooper called out, ‘Come on, the Deaths.’
Fired at by cannons and muskets to the front and on both flanks, there was plenty of dying. And worse, the horribly mutilated flesh and bones of the wounded as they fell among the hooves, and the shrieks of those pierced by shrapnel:
And as we race towards the human wall
The screams of pain as my comrades fall.
When they reached the Russian battery, the survivors lusted after Russian blood – and that is where we see Eddie on the cover of The Trooper and the label of Trooper beer, wielding his blood-stained blade, cutting down every Russian in his path.
That image is no exaggeration. Survivors report how a state of rage overcame them when they got among the enemy:
‘I felt my blood thicken … my heart became hot and I had neither fear nor pity.’
‘My blood was up … we cut away like madmen.’
‘We thrust and hacked like demons.’
The image of Eddie at Balaklava is the graphic equivalent of that blood lust. The British army sent to the Crimea was comprised of hard men who knew how to kill, and raw recruits who learned quickly or died quickly. They may not have looked like Eddie from the outside, but when they saw their comrades cut down by Russian roundshot and shell, all of his blood lust swelled up inside them.
At Balaklava on 25 October 1854 during the Crimean War, the Light Brigade made the most magnificent and most brutal charge in military history. 666 cavalrymen armed with sabre and lance charged down a mile-long valley, straight at the muzzles of Russian cannons. In the slaughter that followed, many fell to roundshot and shell fired from the front and both sides. Those who survived took a bloody revenge on the enemy.
The best-known cavalry charge in history is commemorated by the best-known poem in the English language: The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His verses caught the public imagination with their rhythm that echoed the beat of the hooves:
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
Steve Harris was inspired by Tennyson when he wrote the lyrics for The Trooper. Not to be outdone by Tennyson’s rhythmic beat, Iron Maiden’s opening riff sounds like the thunder of galloping hooves:
The bugle sounds and the charge begins
But on this battlefield no one wins;
The smell of acrid smoke and horses breath
As I plunge on into certain death.
Certain death for many, because the Russians had cannons ahead of them, and cannons on both flanks. It took seven minutes to ride Hell’s mile. Despite the cracks of shells bursting overhead and the shrieks of troopers pierced by burning metal shards, the most macabre sound was the wet ‘slosh’ of a twelve-pound iron roundshot passing through a man’s chest, leaving little of the torso intact.
Survivors described what one man called ‘that ride of horrors’:
‘The cannons in front were visible as streaks of fire two feet long in the centre of a gush of thick white smoke.’
‘The men in my squadron were nearly all cut down, including a sergeant who had his head blown off.’
As they brought their mounts to the gallop and headed straight for the muzzles of the guns ahead, these cavalrymen also came under fire from enemy guns on both flanks. The barrage of roundshot and shell was constant and deafening. Men and horses fell dead or mutilated at every stride.
‘My horse was hit by a ball in the neck, which covered me with a shower of blood from the wound.’
‘Our pace increased amidst the thickest shower of roundshot and shell, whistling and cracking overhead. Horses and men dropped every yard.’
When the brigade was eighty yards from the gun line, officers and men spurred their horses to the final dash. Lances and sabres were lowered to the ‘engage’.
‘When the last volley went off, the flame, the smoke, the roar, were in our faces. It was like riding into the mouth of a volcano.’
As what remained of the Light Brigade disappeared into the smoke and belching flames of the Russian guns, it seemed that these magnificent cavalrymen had charged into hell itself.
Russian officers called it a ‘wild charge’ and decided the whole brigade must have been made drunk before being sent against the guns. General Liprandi, inspecting men of the Light Brigade taken prisoner, asked them in English: ‘What did they give you to drink?’ William Kirk of the 17th Lancers answered back: ‘You think we were drunk? By God, if we had as much as smelt the barrel, we would have taken half Russia by now.’
After the charge, one survivor returned to the tent he had shared with nine others – and found himself alone now. He sat down and began a sad letter home. At least he could do that. The dead can leave no account, but in The Trooper Steve Harris lends them a voice:
And as I lay there gazing at the sky
My body’s numb and my throat is dry;
And as I lay forgotten and alone
Without a tear I draw my parting groan.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Well, no, not exactly.
According to Alfred, Lord Tennyson he wrote his most famous poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, after reading the first report in The Times, ‘where only 607 are mentioned as having taken part.’ He rounded this number down and wrote of ‘the noble six hundred’. When later accounts made it 673, his wife Emily reassured him that the metre was more important than getting the number right.
But sometimes precise numbers do have significance. In his lyrics for The Number of the Beast Steve Harris drew on the long connection of the number 666 with evil and the beast that is the Antichrist. In Hell Riders: the Truth about the Charge of the Light Brigade I recalculated the number of men who charged into the Valley of Death and found that it was 666.
This is such a remarkable conclusion that it needs justifying, so here’s how I reached that figure.
My starting point was the records compiled on the day of the charge. Lord George Paget, who was present at Balaklava, gave a total of 673, based on the regimental returns of those on parade that morning. Because some men later reported sick and did not take part in the charge, Colonel Whinyates used the same records but excluded non-combatants, and made it 658.
This is the number of regimental officers and men in the charge. To this we must add the six non-regimental officers who took part: Lord Cardigan, Colonel Mayow, Lieutenant Maxse, Captain Nolan, Major Grove and Lieutenant Landrini. Including these gives a total of 664.
I discovered that one man, Assistant Surgeon Henry Wilkin, has been overlooked because he should not have been in the charge. Surgeons were crucial following an engagement and were not required to risk themselves in action. Wilkin had other ideas and charged with the men – he was seen by other survivors. Adding him increases the total to 665.
And that is where it would have remained if one trooper of the 17th Lancers had not become drunk on the night before the charge.
John Vahey earned extra money by acting as the regimental butcher, and spent every penny on beer and rum. The night before the charge he had been discovered drunk, still in his butcher’s overalls, and put in the prison tent.
Vahey was not counted in the regimental returns for the morning parade because he was still imprisoned. He later escaped, took a horse, and arrived in the valley just in time to join the charge. Others recalled seeing him, wearing his butcher’s overall in place of his uniform, and wielding a butcher’s axe instead of a sabre.
On this evidence, we must add Vahey to the figure to make a total of 666. Many of these men were killed before reaching the gun line. The survivors leaped into the smoke that still covered the guns – into what Tennyson called ‘the mouth of Hell’.
Vahey wrote: ‘The Russian battery kept vomiting death on us like a volcano, till I seemed to feel the hot air from the canon’s mouth. Half a dozen of us leaped in among the guns at once, and I with one blow of my axe brained a Russian gunner. With another I split open the head of an officer, and then we went smack through the stragglers, cutting and slashing like fiends.’
James Wightman of the 17th Lancers wrote: ‘The smoke was so dense I could not see my arms before me. In the darkness we cut and thrust like demons.’ His words bring to mind lyrics from The Number of the Beast:
In the mist, dark figures move and twist
Was all this for real or just some kind of Hell?
666, the number of the beast
Hell and fire was spawned to be released.
The Soldier’s Prayer was sung on the ships as the army sailed out to the Crimea, and answered by the sailors:
Now the first thing we'll pray for, we'll pray for some beer,
And if we only get some it will bring us good cheer,
And if we have one beer may we also have ten;
May we have a fucking brewery, said the sailor, Amen!
At Balaklava, when there was no fighting to be done, the cavalryman’s day had three parts: the morning devoted to drill and grooming the horses, the afternoon to tobacco, and the evening to beer and bawdy songs. The preferred beer of the British soldier in 1854 was porter, a dark-brown bitter brewed from charred malt. Each man would take his own quart (two-pint) pewter pot to the barrel. Porter cost four pence a pot – so two pence a pint.
After stoppages for his rations, a soldier’s pay left him with about eight pence a day. Most men smoked clay pipes and the cost of shag tobacco rose as the supply dwindled. So they could afford two or three pints of porter at most to fuel the evening’s bawdy.
Don’t want a bullet up me arsehole,
Don’t want me bollocks minced with ball;
But if I have to lose ‘em
Then let it be with Susan
Or Meg or Peg or any whore at all.
In fact losing an arm, a leg or half a face was more likely. Three pints was never going to quench the deeper thirst of a man who could be called at a moment’s notice to his final ride. When drinking with death there are no half measures. A favourite song of the Light Brigade, The Cavalry Soldier, ends with two lines that every man bawled out at the top of his voice:
Now some say he went to heaven, some say he went to hell,
Some say he fucked the devil and the devil’s wife as well.
The need for more beer than they could afford meant that some men sold their rations of salt meat and biscuit to purchase extra porter. That was not so bad – porter had a high calorie content and was administered in the hospital tents as a ‘restorative’.
Sutlers who followed the army and set up private canteens, attracted custom by selling beer at three pence a quart instead of four. They could only do so by watering it down, adding treacle to restore its dark-brown colour. Unknown at the time, the brackish water they used was often the source of cholera.
But it was the waiting Russians who would devastate the Light Brigade. Iron Maiden’s The Trooper was written from the perspective of a cavalryman who falls before the guns:
We get so close near enough to fight
When a Russian gets me in his sights;
He pulls the trigger and I feel the blow
A burst of rounds takes my horse below.
Men who lived only a bugle call and a short gallop away from death, hoped to wet their lances and sabres with Russian blood first. The Legend of Fiddlers’ Green was sung by cavalrymen who believed the blood they had shed meant they would be barred from heaven. They invented a place of their own for dead troopers, where the fiddlers play forever, supplies of beer and tobacco are never exhausted, and the whores are free:
Halfway down the trail to Hell, in a shady meadow green
Are the souls of all dead troopers camped, near a good old-time canteen,
And this eternal resting place is known as Fiddlers’ Green.
And so when man and horse go down beneath a sabre keen
Or in a roaring charge of fierce melee you stop a bullet clean,
And the Ruskies come to finish you just empty your canteen,
And put your pistol to your head and go to Fiddlers’ Green.
The dying came first. The charge lasted seven minutes and in that time 110 men of the Light Brigade were killed and 161 wounded, some mutilated beyond recognition. When the survivors reached the Russian gun line, they took a bloody revenge on the enemy.
Russian artillery fired roundshot, shell and canister. A roundshot (cannon ball) was a solid iron ball. Its weight and momentum carried it through a man’s chest without losing power, and on through the next, and so on, killing or removing a limb from up to eight men.
Because the cavalry charged in a line two deep, the maximum loss from each roundshot fired from the front was two men. But a roundshot fired from the flank – and at Balaklava there were enemy batteries on both flanks – came along the line, felling up to eight men at once. Survivors were covered with a shower of blood, and the sights were horrendous:
‘Sergeant Talbot had his head carried off by a roundshot, yet for thirty yards the head-less body kept the saddle.’
Even more deadly was shell, a metal container packed with gunpowder and fitted with a fuse preset to ignite the powder over enemy troops. This sent deadly shards of shell casing plummeting into a dozen or so men and horses:
‘John Lee was smashed by a shell and fell from the saddle. His grey mare kept alongside me, treading on and tearing out her entrails, till she fell with a shriek.’
As the brigade closed on the gun line, the gunners loaded canister. This thin metal container broke up as it left the muzzle and dispersed iron pellets over a wide area. At short range, canister had a devastating effect: mangled men and horses bled-out on the battlefield. Meanwhile Russian musketeers took pot-shots at those still in the saddle:
‘I got a musket-ball through my right knee, another in the shin, and my horse had three in the neck which showered me with blood.’
Having seen their comrades cut down, those who reached the gun line had one thought: kill the Ruskies. They held the steel for the job: the lance and sabre.
The 17th Lancers carried a nine-foot lance with a pointed steel head, lowered to target the chest of a dismounted enemy. A gunner who stood his ground was pierced through before he could slash with his sword; a man who ran was quickly skewered from back to front:
‘I went for him, but he bolted; I overtook him and drove my lance into his back.’
Once among the Russians, the sabre was more effective. Its three-foot blade was slightly curved to ease its passage through flesh and muscle. It was used to ‘cut’ or ‘thrust’. The cut had to slice deeply enough to kill (at the head or neck) or disable (slicing upper arm muscles), and had to be razor sharp:
‘I saw Lieutenant Dunn cleave a mounted Russian almost to the saddle.’
With the thrust the pointed steel could penetrate further into the body. But as it could ‘lock’ inside, held by bone or contracting muscle, the primary target of the thrust was the jugular:
‘A Russian came towards me with clenched teeth. I thrust my sword through his neck.’
With no support coming up, the survivors of the Light Brigade had to ride or walk back to the British lines, still fired on by Russian musketeers. Mounted Cossacks rode out to finish off the fallen and limping wounded.
One man wrote that he walked back ‘through a field of blood, scrambling over dead and dying men and horses.’ Another was asked: ‘What is this on your jacket? And on picking it off I found it to be small pieces of flesh that had flown over me.’
It would be five weeks before Tennyson named it the Valley of Death, but the 666 men who rode Hell’s mile needed no telling.